Scott Fawell, the usually tough and outgoing longtime top aide of former Gov. George Ryan (search), fought to control his emotions as he apologized for the political scandal that is sending him to federal prison and doomed Ryan's chance for a second term.

"I would like to express my regret for the actions I took that were the focus of this case," Fawell said, his voice breaking. He couldn't go on.

A few minutes later, U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer sentenced Ryan's former chief of staff and campaign manager to 6 1/2 years in prison for racketeering, tax fraud, perjury and obstruction of justice.

It was a milestone in the federal government's sweeping, five-year Operation Safe Road (search) investigation of corruption, mainly in the eight years when Ryan was secretary of state before his 1998 election as governor.

Fawell, 46, was the highest ranking among 63 individuals charged and 57 convicted thus far in Operation Safe Road.

He was convicted March 19 following a seven-week trial at which witnesses said Fawell had ordered state employees to do campaign work on state time and used taxpayer dollars to operate Ryan's political organization.

Witnesses said he largely dismantled Ryan's inspector general's office to head off investigations of Ryan's fund-raising. They said he ordered documents to be shredded to keep them out of the hands of federal investigators.

The investigation initially focused on bribes exchanged for licenses for unqualified truck drivers. It expanded later into a full-blown inquiry into a wide range of bribery and other corruption in the Ryan era.

Ryan, himself, has not been accused of wrongdoing.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Pallmeyer could have sentenced Fawell within a range of 70 to 87 months; the sentence she imposed split the difference.

She turned down a request from federal prosecutors for a toughened sentence that could have sent Fawell to prison for as much as 11 years.

Pallmeyer also turned down a defense request for a break on the grounds that corruption is pervasive in Illinois government.

Fawell regained his composure as he left the courthouse with his mother, former state Sen. Beverly Fawell, and other Fawell relatives. He acknowledged that he had made a few errors. But he said mistakes were easy to make in politics.

"It's a pretty rough and tumble business, always has been, always will be," Fawell said. "I wish I could go back and change some of the things I did. But do I consider myself a criminal? Absolutely not."

Pallmeyer set Nov. 8 for Fawell to surrender to start his sentence.

Also convicted at the trial was the Citizens for Ryan (search), a campaign committee that once had $15 million in the bank and which is now largely a shell, broke and with little or no staff.

After the verdict, Pallmeyer ordered the committee to forfeit $750,000. On Monday, she directed that $505,000 of that must be returned to the secretary of state's office to make up for salaries paid to those who had done campaign work on state time.